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February 15th, 2013
SXSW Interactive growth makes it harder for startups to stand out

Tim Rothwell, left, and Brett Berman, both 23, are hoping their company’s mobile app will be a hit at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, a launching pad for startups. PHOTO by MARISA VASQUEZ/ REPORTING TEXAS

Tim Rothwell, left, and Brett Berman, both 23, are hoping their company’s mobile app will be a hit at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, a launching pad for startups. PHOTO by MARISA VASQUEZ/ REPORTING TEXAS

For Reporting Texas

Brett Berman is hoping his company’s mobile app, UMeTime, will be a hit at next month’s South by Southwest Interactive, the annual Austin tech conference that was a launching pad for Twitter and Foursquare. Berman knows it won’t be easy at an event where dozens of other startups will be competing for the attention of nearly 25,000 attendees.

“If you’re a startup, or anything close to that, it’s really hard to stand out,” said Berman, 23, UMeTime’s co-founder. He’s hoping the app’s usefulness for conference attendees will make a difference: It lets consumers search for deals on food and drinks at restaurants in their immediate area while allowing restaurants to publicize their specials.

South by Southwest Interactive is a spinoff of the 26-year-old music and film festivals that rank among the biggest events in Austin each year. The Interactive event, which focuses on emerging technology and media, started with several hundred attendees in 1994. Last year, it drew more than 24,000 people from 72 countries, including dozens of tech journalists from such publications as The New York Times and Washington Post and bloggers from influential websites as TechCrunch. This year’s event, March 8-12, includes panels, speakers and sessions at the Austin Convention Center and downtown hotels.

“In some ways, it is more challenging to rise above the noise,” said Hugh Forrest, director of the interactive event. “But it’s a double-edged sword. As there becomes more attendance, it’s more challenging to stand out, but there are a lot more people to meet that can help you stand out and succeed.”

Twitter launched at the event in 2007, and Foursquare, the location-based social networking app, followed two years later. But buzz does not guarantee staying power. In 2012, Math Camp’s Highlight app, which alerts users if friends or friends of friends are nearby, drew the most attention from attendees and the press but dropped off the radar after the festival.

“Sometimes you just have to be working in an area that’s going to be really hot that year and that’s how you get noticed. And sometimes even that isn’t enough,” said Omar Gallaga, who has covered SXSW Interactive since 1998 as a tech culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

“South by Southwest is still a good place to get apps in front of people and to get the tech press interested, but you have to be really smart about it,” Gallaga said. “A lot of companies go into it without a strategy and expect to be noticed at the festival, and they come away from it disappointed. It’s a combination of timing, being the right app in the right genre, and approaching the festival in a smart way.”

Ben McCraw, chief creative officer at Chaotic Moon, an Austin mobile development studio, said he typically advises clients against launching at SXSW. It’s too hard for companies to guess whether it’s the right time or place to launch, said McCraw, whose own company helps others launch platforms and create their mobile presence.

“But if you’ve got something that you really feel strongly is going to make a splash and an impact that can rise above the rest, and you’re damn sure it’s going to, then I say go for it,” McCraw said.

Some companies spend a lot of money in an effort to get noticed, including renting a booth at the Convention Center exhibit hall and organizing flashy press events. Berman said UMeTime is promoting itself on a budget, participating in the SXSW Startup Crawl – a shuttle bus tour of downtown-area startups — the night before the conference starts. During SXSW, the app will highlight restaurants near the conference and the University of Texas campus.

Berman started the company with friend Tim Rothwell, also 23, in Los Angeles. They moved it to Austin last year to launch the app here this month and to prepare for SXSW.

“We’re fortunate enough that our technology integrates local businesses here,” Berman said. “We’ll help them get people in the doors and direct traffic to the businesses hosting things going on at South by Southwest. We’re helping them get quality customers in real time.”

McCraw of Chaotic Moon said the growth of the festival makes it harder for a startup to mimick Twitter’s impact.

“If Twitter launched in 2013 at South by Southwest, would it make as big of a splash? I don’t think so. I think South by Southwest is a lot noisier now than it was then,” McCraw said. “It’s really easy to say, ‘I’m going to launch this big massive campaign around South by Southwest,’ and then get completely buried in everybody else’s big, massive campaign.”

But Forrest, the conference director, said that as long as an app company has a game plan and good idea, it has the same shot as everyone else at breaking out of the crowd.

“At the end of the day, I think the formula for success remains the same,” Forrest said. “If you have a new creative idea that’s very original and noteworthy, it’ll get discovered. It’s what happened in 2007 with Twitter and in 2009 with Foursquare, and it’s what’ll happen in 2013 with whatever app ends up gaining the largest following after the event.”

SHEYNA WEBSTER writes for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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